Monday, December 11, 2023

Joe Mazzulla's growth as a coach on full display this season

Since taking over head coaching duties last season, there was plenty of criticism surrounding Joe Mazzulla. As the league's youngest head coach joining one of the most storied franchises in NBA history, a lot of pressure will come along with that.

Despite taking the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, Boston's performance in the Miami Heat series left many questioning whether Mazzulla was the right coach to get the team over the hump -- especially after all of the changes made in the offseason.

Fast forward to the 2023-24 campaign, and the Celtics haven't skipped a beat as the top team in the East with a 16-5 record. Putting last year behind him, Mazzula has grown into his role so far this season living up to the high expectations.

Legendary Celtics play-by-play announcer Mike Gorman joined the Green with Envy Podcast recently to discuss the 34 year-old's growth from last year to now. With a full season with the team under his belt, Gorman believes Mazzulla has looked more comfortable leading Boston this season.
"I think now he's more comfortable with who he is and where he's going," said Gorman. "And he understands that he's going to win some, he's going to lose some, but he's going to be in them."
That comfort level has certainly grown with the help of new assistant coaches Sam Cassell and Charles Lee, who both came over from the Celtics two conference rivals in the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks.

Famously known for his decision to not call timeouts in key moments and trust his players to figure everything out together as a team on the court certainly was an unorthodox approach for Mazzulla last season -- which were met with plenty of disapproval in the media. His questionable decisions with rotations at times stirred some criticism as well, but over the course of the season, the Celtics adapted and still found success. He's done that well this season finding ways to get the most out of his players in their new roles.

With a lot of new faces, there was expectation the Celtics would struggle, especially with Mazzulla learning how to use his rotations. The first decision came with moving Al Horford to the bench which has worked flawlessly as Derrick White has thrived alongside Jrue Holiday defensively, giving the Celtics one of the most versatile lineups in the league.

Thus far, Boston's starting-five remains one of the most dominant units in the league, when all are healthy. Kristaps Porzingis has missed four games this season, and it was clear the Celtics aren't the same without him on full display during the In Season Tournament -- where Boston was eliminated by the Indiana Pacers in the quarterfinals.

Despite the injuries, Mazzulla still has the Celtics sixth in the league in scoring with an 117.5 offensive rating and holding opponents to 109 points per contest -- good for third in defensive rating. Having that efficiency has propelled the Celtics as one of the more dominant teams in the NBA currently -- a testament to Mazzulla's growth transforming the team into one that has emphasized defense this season.

Heading into training camp, Mazzulla took control quickly working closely with his roster, being more personal with his players. He also made sure to connect with some of former Celtics players that have experience winning championships and playing in big games to start motivating this year's team.
"I sent an email out to all the Celtic former players because I felt like it's important that we share in this experience together," Mazzulla said back during training camp. "They started the tradition, they kept it going and now it's our responsibility as an organization to keep it alive. But when you don't see them all the time, you don't get that connection to the past. The only past we have is the banners alone. The past should be the banners, but it should be the people."
With aspirations of finally getting over the hump to win a title, having former Celtics greats working out with the players certainly played a role in the team's early chemistry and their attention to detail. Players including Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo have all spent time with the team during the offseason -- all champions who have given this current Celtics roster plenty of advice for getting over the hump and delivering the franchise's 18th banner.

While it's still a long season and a lot can still happen, Mazzulla has development into more of a personal coach. He's proving to be someone who is doing whatever it takes to motivate his players, and preparing all offseason to integrate a plan to be a more well-rounded squad. It's clear this year's Celtics team is more focused to get the job done this time around.

Learning from their mistakes last year, both the Celtics and Mazzulla are on the right track to avenge a disappointing end to the 2022-23 season. Led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the C's are in good hands to work on getting back to the NBA Finals and finishing the job. There are plenty of good teams in their way in both conferences, but with their head coach's development over the past year, the Celtics could be in position to finally end their 15 year drought, and raise that elusive 18th championship banner. 

Ian Carrano

Photo used courtesy of Getty Images

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